The hungry in Summit know where they can go to catch a break – 306 Morris Avenue. That’s where the Loaves and Fishes food pantry ministry has been quietly serving the community for decades. Every Wednesday morning, volunteers from Saint Teresa of Avila extend a welcoming hand to those who need it most. And despite a spike in demand because of the coronavirus pandemic, the food pantry has continued meeting the needs of the community.
“When the lockdowns from COVID hit, we saw roughly a 35-50 percent increase in patrons. That has come down recently to roughly 10-20 percent above the average,” said Vincent Candela, the Social Concerns chairperson at Saint Teresa of Avila. Candela has been involved with Loaves and Fishes for 20 years. “Our normal average distribution before COVID was about 50-65 families each week. The reason is that many people lost jobs during the lockdowns and specific industries continue to be very hard hit like retail, travel, restaurants, etc.”
George Butt, aged 68 who lives at the senior citizen home across the street, was laid off from his kitchen job with a local pharmaceutical company six months ago. He and his mother have been relying on the food pantry to help them get by.
“This is a great help,” he said on a recent Wednesday as he picked up a bag of food for himself, his mom, and a woman at the senior center with a bad back and who can’t walk. “When you go on unemployment you lose income, so any little bit helps. I’m just bearing through. I miss going to work. I’m bored crazy. I’m just waiting to get called back.”
Msgr. Robert S. Meyer, the pastor of Saint Teresa of Avila, said the beautiful thing about the ministry is that it’s more than just giving someone a bag of food.
“They know somebody’s name,” he said. “They know the people’s stories. They talk to them. They find out particular needs even beyond their own food needs. So, it’s kind of like a family feeding a family which is a beautiful ministry here.”
Along with the volunteers who also sort and bag the food, a big part of the equation are donors from the parish and local businesses.
“Our parishioners are extremely generous and have funded the food pantry mostly by cash donations over the years and our volunteers would shop for the food online,” said Candela. “But when COVID hit, shopping online was almost impossible, as almost everyone was doing it. So, the parish staff put out weekly notices about the need for the food itself, and let's just say we have been overwhelmed with their generosity. We have not run short throughout the pandemic. Our volunteers have also been absolutely selfless during this pandemic and have shown what true Christian virtue is all about. Every week they are there, regardless of the risk, and happily greeting the patrons.”
The ministry also receives fresh vegetables like peppers, basil, and tomatoes from the community garden in Summit.
“Every week they come and drop those off and people get to select what they want,” said Deacon Kevin Reina of Saint Teresa of Avila. “People are very, very generous and we’re very, very grateful for them.”
Bishop Elias R. Lorenzo, O.S.B., who recently took up residence in Summit, often spends time at the food pantry after celebrating Mass on Wednesday mornings.
“You don’t think that Summit has poor, but the poor are everywhere,” he said. “So, I usually say the Wednesday morning Mass and then go over and greet people who are coming up and thank the volunteers. The food pantry is a great outreach to people in this town that are often hidden. They know that they can come to this parish - Saint Teresa of Avila – and there’s going to be a community that cares for them and that will feed them. Some of them don’t have the financial resources even for this week’s groceries. And it’s wonderful that this parish and people in the area are so generous in providing, literally, a week’s worth of food for a family.”